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Sunderland’s worst XI of the 21st century

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We’ve had some very poor players grace the hallowed turf of the Stadium of Light in recent years, but just who were the worst of the bunch? Kevin Moeliker decides.

Howard Wilkinson

Joint Managers: Howard Wilkinson & David Moyes

Formation: 4-3-3

Selection Criteria: Minimum of 20 league appearances since the year 2000


GK: Kelvin Davis

Davis joined Sunderland in 2005 for a fee of £1.25 million and firmly established himself as the number one ahead of style icon – and wannabe porn star – Ben Alnwick. He was a former Championship goalkeeper of the year - a title which he seemingly wanted to win again judging by his performances in a Sunderland jersey during the Black Cats’ dismal 15 point Premier League campaign.

It’s fair to say that Kelvin couldn’t catch a cold, but despite this the former Ipswich Town stopper made a staggering 33 league appearances for Sunderland under the reigns of Mick McCarthy and Kevin Ball respectively.

Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Hopeless at shot-stopping and rooted to his line from crosses, it’s easy to see why Davis conceded so many goals during his time on Wearside. With Kelvin in goal, the impossible was possible as demonstrated by Matthew Taylor when he embarrassed Davis from 45 yards during Sunderland’s 4-1 defeat to Portsmouth in October 2005.


RB: Nyron Nosworthy

Another Mick McCarthy signing who joined the club from Gillingham on a free transfer in June 2005. He was initially signed as backup for Stephen Wright, but when Luggsy sustained a serious knee injury early on in the 2005/06 campaign Nyron was thrust into the first team. It proved to be a rather tough baptism of fire for the inexperienced 25-year-old who had spent most of his career in the lower echelons of English football.

Don’t get me wrong I liked Nyron because he was an honest lad who always gave 100% for the club. To be fair, I have seen him have some really good games in a Sunderland shirt, but let’s be frank, his footballing ability was somewhat limited.

Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images

Nevertheless, he didn’t let that hold him back and for that he is to be admired. For instance, Nyron was a great advocate of the Cruyff turn – particularly on the edge of his own box – and he used to go on some rampaging runs down the right flank before falling over the ball at the vital moment, but hey, that was Nyron for ya - a special breed.

He made 114 league appearances for Sunderland during his seven-year spell at the club and was the subject of several terrace chants including (to the tune of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’) ‘they tried to get the ball past Nyron but he said no, no, no.’ An absolute classic.


CB: Paul McShane

Republic of Ireland international Paul McShane joined the Black Cats in July 2007 for an initial fee of £1.5 million. The former West Bromwich Albion centre half never settled on Wearside and scored an own goal in his second match for the club; a 2-2 draw away at Birmingham City. Sadly, it was a sign of things to come as McShane resembled a bull in a china shop: rash, reckless and simply all over the place.

Photo by Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

He was part of a defence that leaked seven goals in a humiliating defeat at the hands of Everton in November 2007, and was generally pretty awful throughout the 2007/08 Premier League season. In total, the Ginger Beast made 24 league appearances for Sunderland before leaving for Hull City.


CB: Santiago Vergini

The South American country of Argentina has produced footballing greats such as Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona and Gabriel Batistuta – as well as former fan’s favourite Julio Arca – so when Black Cats supporters heard that we were signing another Argentinian defender we had several reasons to be optimistic, at least initially.

That early optimism disappeared pretty early on however - Vergini’s full debut to be exact - when the South American’s calamitous back pass provided Olivier Giroud with the perfect opportunity to double Arsenal’s advantage. Giroud duly accepted Vergini’s gift as the Gunners thrashed Gus Poyet’s Sunderland 4-1 at the Emirates Stadium in February 2014.

Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images

If the footballing greats mentioned above are best enjoyed live, in a stadium environment, where you can appreciate their movement off-the-ball, their vision, ingenuity and execution then Santiago Vergini is best enjoyed at home, hiding behind the sofa, occasionally looking up at the TV screen with sheer discomfort expecting the worst to happen at any sudden moment.

That, for me, summed up his time on Wearside. You just couldn’t rest easy with Vergini at the heart of your defence. His Cruyff turns as last man gave me palpitations, his lack of positional awareness gave me countless sleepless nights, and his decision making left a lot to be desired to say the least - he demonstrated this point aptly when he thumped a 20 yard volley past Vito Mannone during Sunderland’s 8-0 mauling away to Southampton in October 2014.

In total, Vergini made 42 league appearances for Sunderland during his 18 months at the club. He now plays his football at La Bombonera for Argentine giants Boca Juniors.


LB: George McCartney

A player once voted ‘Player of the Season’ by Sunderland supporters (2004/05) and dubbed ‘Mr Consistent’ by his manager (Mick McCarthy), McCartney returned to Sunderland in September 2008 for a fee of £4.5 million. He signed a five-year contract and was a regular at left back under manager Roy Keane, making 41 league appearances in his second spell on Wearside.

Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

McCartney was one of the few shining lights in the disastrous relegation seasons of 2002/03 and 2005/06, but it quickly became apparent that McCartney mark two was a shadow of his former self. Blighted by injuries, he was frightfully slow, had poor positional sense and was generally frightened to tackle as game after game he was tortured by his opponents. He didn’t particularly make clear and obvious errors, mainly because he was nowhere near the ball to make such mistakes. Instead, he’d simply back off and off and off until either his opponent scored or set up a teammate, it was all too easy and all too frustrating for supporters to sit and watch.


RW: Danny Graham

Born in Gateshead in the mid-1980s, Graham was a local lad who grew up supporting Sunderland’s fierce rivals Newcastle Utd. He joined the club in January 2013 for a fee of £5 million and made his debut a few days later, coming on as a late substitute to replace Stephane Sessegnon in the Black Cats 2-1 defeat away to Reading. Despite playing 11 games for Sunderland in his first half season at the club, Graham was unable to get on the scoresheet, so he spent the following season out on loan at Hull City and Middlesbrough.

He returned to Sunderland for the start of the 2014/15 season looking like he’d had one too many parmos. His professionalism was questioned by manager Gus Poyet, and as a result Graham did not feature at all until January when he came on as a late substitute in Sunderland's 1–0 home loss to Liverpool.

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

February, March and April came and went without Graham ending his goal drought, but on 9th May 2015 a miracle occurred as the Geordie finally broke his duck in the red and white stripes of Sunderland with a clinical strike that wrong-footed Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard. I can get away with that right? Perhaps that’s not quite how it happened, but who cares? It was an important goal in a must-win game so who cares how he scored it? They all count don’t they?

For those of you who are actually interested, he basically scored with his backside after deflecting a 25-yard Jordi Gomez shot past the helpless Tim Howard. In short, he knew nothing about it, it was pure luck, not that any of us cared at the time. We went on to win the match 2-0 and avoid relegation once again. Graham left the club a year later with the dismal record of just one goal in 37 league appearances.


CM: Jeff Whitley

Whitley signed for Sunderland in August 2003 and, rather bafflingly, he made 68 league appearances before the powers that be came to their senses and finally got rid of him. If quality players make the difficult look effortlessly easy, Whitley made the effortlessly easy – a simple 5 yard pass – look incredibly difficult.

By his own admission, Whitley suffered from drug and alcohol addiction, which goes some way to explain his awful performances in a red and white shirt. Thankfully with the help of Tony Adams’ Sporting Chance Clinic, he has overcome his demons.

Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

The former Manchester City man is best remembered for missing a crucial penalty in Sunderland’s agonising defeat to Iain Dowie’s Crystal Palace in the 2003/04 Championship play-off semi-finals. With the tie level at 4-4 on aggregate, the match went to penalties and, with the shoot-out finely poised at 4-4, Whitley’s big moment arrived...

Now, I wish I could say that I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I had watched a whole season of this guy doing his best imitation of being a professional footballer, so in my mind the outcome was somewhat inevitable. And so it proved. Whitley tried to outsmart Palace keeper Nico Vaesen and failed miserably to give Michael Hughes the opportunity to fire the Eagles to Wembley. He duly obliged and it was play-off heartache for Mick McCarthy’s Sunderland.


LW: Kevin Kilbane

Nicknamed ‘Killer’, Kevin Kilbane was about as deadly as a pacifist in a war zone. Signed by Peter Reid in December 1999, the winger’s Sunderland career got off to the perfect start when he came off the bench to set up Kevin Phillips’ winner against Southampton. Sadly, it was not a sign of things to come. It took high-flying Sunderland another three months to record another victory in a disastrous spell that was labelled the ‘curse of Kilbane’.

Perhaps blaming Kilbane for Sunderland’s dramatic dip in form was overly harsh, but he clearly had a negative impact on what was a fairly decent Premier League squad. And that for me is why he truly merits a place in this XI. It is fair to say that Will Buckley and Andy Welsh possessed less ability than Kilbane, but in their defence they did not have the luxury of playing alongside talented players - they played in struggling sides that were vastly short on confidence.

In other words, it’s easy to look bad when you are playing in a struggling team, and on the flip side it’s easy to look good when you are playing in a successful team. The fact that Kilbane looked s***e regardless speaks volumes. He was a headless chicken, possessed with great pace and the touch of an elephant. As a result, he often overran the ball to the frustration of fans and teammates alike.

Amazingly, Kilbane made 113 league appearances for the Black Cats before signing for David Moyes’ Everton in the summer of 2003. His Sunderland career can be summed up by one moment; an embarrassing incident at Stamford Bridge in which Kilbane’s shorts fell from his a**e to his ankles, tripping him up just as he was about to embark upon another trademark run into touch. It truly epitomised why he was one of the most ridiculed players in Sunderland’s history.


FW: Jozy Altidore

Having successfully avoided relegation by a meager 3 points the previous season, Roberto De Fanti and Paolo Di Canio scoured Europe in search of a prolific striker to enhance Sunderland’s attack which – with the exception of Steven Fletcher (11 goals) – failed miserably during the 2012/13 campaign.

How they stumbled across Jozy Altidore is anybody’s guess, but I’d like to think of it as a lads pre-season holiday to the Netherlands gone wrong. We’ve all been there, off your face on the local produce wandering through the streets without a care in the world until you stumble across something in the shop window that takes your fancy. To cut a long story short, you end up wasting money on something that you would later regret and that, folks, is the purchase of Jozy Altidore in a nutshell - £6.5 million of regret.

Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images

To be fair to Jozy, he did have an impressive record in the Eredivisie - scoring 38 goals in 59 appearances for AZ Alkmaar. However, what Sunderland’s fantastic scouts - and Paolo Di Canio – didn’t take into account was the sub-par standard of the Dutch top division. Proper research would have told them that Altidore had played in the English Premier League before - a highly unsuccessful loan spell at Hull City in which he scored just one goal in 16 league appearances.

That was woeful, but what followed in the red and white stripes was even worse. Altidore managed just one goal in 21 league appearances for Sunderland, missing numerous guilt-edged chances and open goals during his 18 month stay on Wearside. In fact, it’s fair to say that he couldn’t score in a brothel. He is best remembered for being involved in the swap deal that brought Jermain Defoe to Sunderland from Toronto FC - an unbelievable piece of business from a club who all too often get it wrong in the transfer market.


FW: Michael Proctor

A local lad who came through the Sunderland youth system and went on to play a major part in the dismal 2002/03 Premier League campaign. A player that wore his heart on his sleeve, but was blessed with limited ability as emphasised by the fact that after he left Sunderland he plied his trade in the lower leagues with Rotherham Utd, Hartlepool Utd and Wrexham (respectively) until his retirement in 2009.

The Stadium of Light faithful may not have spotted his potential, but Howard Wilkinson certainly did, cutting short his 3 month loan spell at Bradford City to throw him into the Sunderland first team. He made 21 appearances during the Black Cats’ woeful 19 point season, scoring two goals and providing one assist for a teammate. He scored the winner in Sunderland’s 2-1 win over Liverpool in December 2002, an unexpected success that proved to be the last of a forgettable campaign.

Photo by Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

Although he was pretty hopeless in front of goal at the right end, Proctor proved to be somewhat prolific at the wrong end, as he proved during Sunderland’s bizarre defeat to Charlton Athletic in February 2003. Trailing 1-0 to a Stephen Wright own goal, Sgt Wilko’s side desperately needed someone to step-up and take the game by the scruff of the neck, and it was at that point that Proctor seized his moment. His two own goals in the space of five first half minutes condemned the Black Cats to a humiliating 3-1 defeat - and cemented his place in the record books for all the wrong reasons.


FW: Jon Stead

Signed from Blackburn Rovers in a deal worth £1.8 million, Stead was a young player supposedly destined for a big future. His six goals in 13 games – including crucial winners against Fulham, Manchester Utd and Everton – during the 2003/04 season helped Rovers successfully avoid relegation and thrust the 21-year-old striker into the footballing limelight. Sunderland boss Mick McCarthy tried to sign Stead that summer but instead had to wait a further year to acquire the striker’s services.

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Apparently good things come to those who wait, and boy did we have to wait for Stead’s first goal in a Sunderland shirt – 11 months to be precise. When the moment did finally arrive it was, rather fittingly, on April Fools’ Day 2006 during the Black Cats’ 2-2 draw against Everton at Goodison Park. It was ultimately his first and last goal of that season; a season in which he featured in 30 of Sunderland’s 38 league games. Only one further goal would follow before Stead left Wearside looking to rebuild his career elsewhere.